If it takes two to three seasons to fairly analyze a draft, then a referendum is soon coming on the Dolphins’ 2011 class, which has produced only one current Dolphins starter: center Mike Pouncey.
But the Dolphins firmly believe two others from that class — Daniel Thomas and Charles Clay — can develop into key, consistent cogs in their offense this season.
Coach Joe Philbin has been complimentary of Thomas, whose first two seasons were marked by injury, inconsistency and a 2012 preseason admonishment from Philbin, which was aired on HBO’s Hard Knocks.
Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said he’s excited about pairing Clay with starting tight end Dustin Keller, because the Dolphins can run any of their formations with that tandem.
Expectations differed somewhat for both after that draft — the Dolphins traded up to select Thomas 62nd, whereas Clay was picked in the sixth round and is a success story of sorts by simply surviving.
But their careers have had somewhat similar arcs — flashes of promise and exasperating mistakes, plus knee injuries and surgeries that sidelined each for the final two games of 2012.
Last season, no NFL running back with as few carries as Thomas fumbled as much (three times in 91 attempts). Meanwhile, no NFL tight end targeted as few times as Clay dropped as many passes (five, compared with 18 receptions, in 27 targets).
The stakes ratchet up for both this season. Though Lamar Miller remains the favorite to start, Thomas continues to receive some first-team reps, and Sherman said the running back competition is “pretty close.” Thomas expects one to be “1A, one 1B.”
Thomas’ best NFL games remain the first two of his career — an 18-carry, 107-yard eruption against Houston (the second-most yards by a Dolphins running back in his first game, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 115) and a 23-carry, 95-yard outburst the following week against Oakland.
He hasn’t matched those yardage totals in any of his 23 games since and overall has averaged an underwhelming 3.5 yards per carry, which he calls unacceptable, after averaging 5.2 in his two seasons at Kansas State.
Last season, only four running backs with as many carries averaged less per carry than Thomas’ 3.6: Alex Green, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Darren McFadden and Rashad Jennings. In his career, Thomas has converted less than half of his third- and fourth-down runs with 1 or 2 yards needed.
He missed games because of a hamstring injury in 2011, a concussion last October and last December’s knee injury to his meniscus.
“It feels like I had injuries all the time, and I had never gotten hurt before,” he said.
Thomas trained in Arizona with a group of players, including Terrell Suggs and Tim Tebow, this past spring, because “I wanted to get my legs back stronger [after knee surgery]. I’ve been very inconsistent. This is the year I’ve got to put everything together.”
Early signs are encouraging. Thomas had 8- and 9-yard runs to help fuel the Dolphins’ first-quarter touchdown drive in Jacksonville and was impressive in Monday’s practice, with two forceful runs in red-zone drills and a nifty catch along the sidelines.
“I like what he’s doing this camp,” Philbin said. “I’m very happy with the way he’s practicing. He’s running the ball hard. He’s been doing a good job in pass protection.”